School of One: Thoughts on Expansion (Part II)

This is the second part of a two-post series reflecting on my visit to Brooklyn’s David A. Boody Intermediate School (IS 228), one of New York City’s three School of One pilot schools.

With national media attention, promising — though very preliminary — initial results, and strong public/private support, School of One, though just a few years old, is already being hailed as a national model to expand. But, before talking expansion, we should really understand the actual program model.

First, as I explained in part I, the core of the model is about differentiation — not technology. While technology undergirds School of One, the core problem that the program is trying to solve is age-old: how to effectively teach all students, especially when each enters with a variety of different math backgrounds, skill levels, and interests.

Second, and critical to discussions of expansion or “scaling” School of One, it’s what co-founder Chris Rush described as an “80% solution.” In other words, it’s not a turn-key model, but is meant to be customized to each school. For example:

  • Each of the three schools runs the program with a different staffing configuration — based largely on what was in place before the program launched.
  • While there are clearly base requirements for both physical space and technology infrastructure, the program doesn’t require a set 1:1 computing environment. Each of the three schools running the program adapts to different quantities and types of computers.
  • Schools set the parameters for grading, deciding how to weight assessment-based progress through lessons, homework, participation, and projects.
  • Schools set the class schedule, with different schools offering different amounts of class periods (time) in their curriculum. The school I visited offered eight periods per week, while another pilot school offers seven.
  • Most importantly, how the school teaching team works, designs collaborative practice, and meshes with the rest of the school (how does it integrate with science classes?) are all going to depend on both the local context and specific educators leading the instruction.

I’m sure that there are many more customizations — small and large — that I didn’t pick up in the tour. Regardless, the main point for expansion is that we shouldn’t think of this as a program that you just plop down and turn-on into a school.

When Rush described the “80% solution,” the analogy he used was an SAP software installation. For those not familiar with the analogy, SAP is so-called enterprise software, used by large public and private organizations to run human resources, inventory, finance and other functions. The main point though, is that you don’t just buy SAP, load it onto your computer system, and go. There’s a great deal of customization, expertise, and training required to make it work. And, when it works it’s great. But when customization is not done well, it can also fail spectacularly.

All of this means that School of One doesn’t fit neatly into our dichotomous narratives around technology and education. It’s neither “teacher-proof,” nor a “teacher job-killer.” It’s very different and we can expect to see a number of experiments around customization, including changes in both the quantity and types of persons running these programs. If done thoughtfully and always with a focus on improving student learning, these types of local adaptations can help us learn a lot about different options for improving instruction and allowing different persons to use their skills in the best ways.

While the need for customization makes expansion more difficult, in the long run, it’s a huge strength. If done well, that means that the School of One concept can apply its technologies and approaches to different local contexts. Importantly, it also means that we don’t have to wait for a full roll-out for individual schools to begin borrowing and tinkering with some of School of One’s underlying innovations — ideas about scheduling, differentiated teacher roles and instruction, student progress, and perhaps, even treating teachers more like surgeons.

-Bill Tucker

Read part I of this series here.

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